A little bit ago, esteemed comics critic and annotator David Uzumeri was talking on Twitter about how much it irritates him to see Image called an “indie.” This prompted the inevitable semantic debate over the meaning of indie and a lot of defenses of that publishing giant as undoubtedly indie because it doesn’t have a WB or a Disney breathing down its neck. But for all my dalliances in comics crit trenches, I’ve been deep in the even more depressing world of the music industry for a lot longer and I knew exactly what the fuck Uzi meant. Indie may have its origins in economic signifiers, but that’s no longer the only or even the best barometer of the term. Indie is as much as an ethos and a genre as punk and when we’re talking indie comics, we’re talking weird, disheveled zines and unhinged anti-pop glory, the kinds of comics that nearly never make it as far as a hometown weekly let alone USA Today. Put succinctly, we’re talking about shit like Irene.
A newish collective with an eponymous anthology, Irene is the shared child of Dakota McFadzean, dw and Andy Warner. Loser City’s introduction to Irene technically came via an e-mail from Andy, but my real introduction to Irene was when the collection of books and zines Andy put together for us made its way to me and I was greeted by the cover to number five:
Awash in industrial waste pinks and steely blues, that cover would have demanded my attention even if it didn’t feature an old man’s head on a mangy mutt’s body. But I’m a sucker for heads being put on the wrong bodies, so I was ensnared from the get go. Unlike its closest spiritual brethren Study Group, Irene the anthology isn’t constructed like a magazine, but instead like the old pulp mags that cover recalls. Ditching articles and sticking instead strictly to a mix of non-fiction and fiction stories, as well as sketches, mixed media pieces and MAD-like interstitial scenes, Irene covers an impressive range of comics. The two issues we received run the gamut from a short about the man who loaned a dying Lincoln his boarding room to a tragicomic story about what boats really want to the horror short that old man dog comes from.
None of the issues follow any sort of theme, really, but issue four is notably more focused on trauma and loss. James K. Hindle’s “Yellow Plastic” is an early standout, depicting how the tragedy of some wildfires that ravaged a small town can bring together a young woman with her own fire-related trauma and a young man still confused by the damage to his neighborhood. Hindle’s linework has some of the same German Expressionist influences of Joann Sfar, but is rougher, which allows flame-like shapes to intrude on its intimate moments. Laura Terry’s “The Dark” has cleaner linework, but features an intrusion of its own, as a young woman struggles to escape the specter of addiction, or an enabler, or a bad influence, ultimately having to violently shock her system just to get away.
Mazen Kerbaj’s surreal bedtime story “Boats” at first seems like a one panel gag, beginning as it does with the caption “boats don’t like water” and a trilogy of static frames depicting a boat on top of that water it doesn’t like, but even here there is melancholy and a need to get away. What first seems like surreal humor becomes tearful, Kerbaj explaining that “men spend their lives wondering what’s beyond the horizon” while boats “spend their lives wondering what’s underneath it.” That melancholic take on mystery and childlike whimsy is echoed in Dakota McFadzean’s contribution to issue five, “Gnoshlox,” where a kid’s sandbox creations are given a life of sorts, until it all disappears when the boy is too old to really imagine other worlds anymore.
“Gnoshlox” takes its initially absurd premise into Terry Gilliam-esque territory, but McFadzean’s simple yet imaginative art carries the story beyond what its dreamy plot seems capable of. McFadzean’s work relies on iconography, making the most of minimal yet vivid images, like that grounding middle tier of panels just showing the gnoshlox moving closer and closer into frame, or the alternating white-text-on-black ink and suburban childhood symbols at the bottom. Andy Warner’s own contributions are similarly suburban and iconic, especially in the When We Were Kids collection he included, which brings together a few philosophically connected shorts from previous issues of Irene.
Kids features a lot of stories about escape, whether from the boredom of high school or an oppressive home life, and Warner’s art bridges the ominous high school works Black Hole and My Friend Dahmer, with outstretched eerie shadows bordering every backwoods party as a cast of chubby faced teens sulk and misbehave. The best of these is “Champions,” a story told from the perspective of a little brother who idolizes his troubled older brother and is certain a drunken snowmobile race will rocket his brother to glory not tragedy. The other stories in the mini-collection are a bit more sparse in their backgrounds, and more dialogue oriented, but “Champions” takes place both in the headspace of the younger brother and the dark winter woods that offer a different kind of oppressive menace than the bleak homelife they’re trying to avoid. With its terse, unencumbered diction and vivid contrasts between snowy expanses and circular woods, “Champions” provides a rush, even as the serious emotional stakes it details offset the teenage adrenaline rush of its main plot.
The closest these Irene works get to the type of indie practiced by Image is in “The Fifth Column: Homecoming,” a terrifying short by The FDZ and Fouad Mezher about a man who is trying to escape Beirut but winds up getting attacked by a guard dog while on his way to his own going away party. He heads to a hospital after the incident and ends up getting treated by a girl he knew in high school. She insists he take a series of rabies shots, but when she mentions it would take a number of days to go through and he won’t be able to drink during the treatments, he talks her into coming with him to find the dog’s owner to confirm the dog doesn’t have rabies. The story is genuinely frightening at points, and it’s well-plotted and drawn. But it’s also more polished than the bulk of what’s in Irene, with the kind of sharp linework that wouldn’t be out of place in one of those Vertigo Crime novellas.
Even with that in mind, though, it ultimately fits in with Irene’s indie grab bag aesthetic, particularly since it appears in an issue that also has a partially cybernetic bisexual astronaut bonding with an alien polyp in order to save both their species, and a Basquiat-like mixed media epic that at one point features a puppy asking his father if he can feel his penis. I don’t know if I’d really call Image indie anymore, but I can tell you Irene is as independent as it gets, and more in need of your attention than whatever new Big Two vacationer is hawking.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover